Ron James is director of the Nevada Office of Historic Preservation. He is also author of A Guidebook to Nevada’s Historical Markers, The Roar and the Silence/A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode, and coauthor of Comstock Women.
Give me an overview of historic preservation in Nevada now.
The thing about preservation is that on the best of days it’s a blend of winning and losing because the buildings, the historic buildings and the archeological sites that we try to protect are non-renewable resources, and they’re subject to all sorts of fates that aren’t always kind. So we’re always going to lose some, no matter how successful we are. I think right now we’ve got a healthy blend of loss and success. You’re never going to get rid of all the loss. You’re just—you’re going to have to deal with it, but we have some successes, as well.
There’s no way to plan for some things, like the Nixon Opera House burning down.
The Nixon Opera House in Winnemucca was a real loss. The Mapes Hotel was a real loss, the V&T shops in Carson City, the Ice House in Las Vegas. Those were all man-made demolitions, either through arson or through the bulldozer. Some of them are environmental, some are accidental. … They can be very fragile. But on the other hand, we had a fire in the lowest floor of the Fourth Ward School [a four-story building constructed in Storey County in 1876], and we had installed a sprinkler system there. It knocked the fire down immediately, and people went in there and turned the fire suppressant system off immediately, damage was a minimum. … So there’s a real success story. We could have lost the Fourth Ward School with that fire. The next fire might not be so kind, placed in a different position, and who knows what could happen? So it’s such a struggle.
There was a time when Reno had a better reputation than Las Vegas in your field for protecting its structures. I understand that has turned around some.
Yes, and these things can be roller coasters. Reno had become a name that elicited groans from preservationists throughout the state.
Principally the Mapes?
Not just the Mapes—a general disposition that was against the resource [of historic structures], that was reminiscent of the reputation that Las Vegas had. The reputation Las Vegas had is largely unfair, and it’s often based on demolition of Strip properties when the whole point of the Strip was to have a gaming zone outside of the city limits, and in fact that was Clark County, not Las Vegas. But the community as a whole takes the rap. Las Vegas has become extremely progressive in its dealing with historic resources. They’re to be highly commended for what they’ve done. They’re one of our best local governments and one of our best communities. They don’t have a lot of historic resources in proportion to the community because it’s grown so much in recent years, but it still has the oldest building in the state [the Mormon Fort], it has a wonderful art deco high school, it has a courthouse and post office building that’s going to become one of the beacons of preservation in the Southwest. So it’s got a great deal going for it. Reno slumped and developed a bad reputation over the years, but the good news is that over the past two or three years … I have observed a remarkable ascendancy with regard to Reno. They really have turned themselves around completely. They have a passionate devotion to preservation that runs from the top of the elected officials all the way down to staff. And I think they’re to be commended. They’re just doing wonderful work. … These things are cyclical, and Reno’s on the up-spin, doing great work, and that’s what we need to focus on.